This was August. The ocean was warm, and warmer every day.
Alex waited for a set to finish before making her way into the water, slogging through until it was deep enough to dive. A bout of strong swimming and she was out, beyond the break. The surface was calm.
From here, the sand was immaculate. The light—the famous light—made it all look honeyed and mild: the dark European green of the scrub trees, the dune grasses that moved in whispery Unison. The cars in the parking lot. Even the seagulls swarming a trash can.
On the shore, the towels were occupied by placid beachgoers. A man tanned to the color of expensive luggage let out a yawn, a young mother watched her children run back and forth to the waterline.
What would they see if they looked at Alex?
In the water, she was just like everyone else. Nothing strange about a young woman, swimming alone. No way to tell whether she belonged here or didn’t.
When Simon had first taken her to the beach, he’d kicked off his shoes at the entrance. Everyone did, apparently: there were shoes and sandals piled up by the low wood railing. No one takes them? Alex asked. Simon raised his eyebrows. Who would take someone’s shoes?
But that had been Alex’s immediate thought—how easy it would be to take things, out here. All sorts of things. The bikes leaning against the fence. The bags unattended on towels. The cars left unlocked, no one wanting to carry their keys on the beach. A system that existed only because everyone believed they were among people like themselves.
Before Alex left for the beach, she had swallowed one of Simon’s painkillers, a leftover from a long-ago back surgery, and already the familiar mental gauze had descended, the surrounding salt water another narcotic. Her heart beat pleasantly, noticeably, in her chest. Why did being in the ocean make you feel like such a good human? She floated on her back, her body moving a little in the push and pull, her eyes closed against the sun.
There was a party tonight, hosted by one of Simon’s friends. Or a business friend—all his friends were business friends. Until then, hours to waste. Simon would be working the rest of the day, Alex left to her own devices, as she had been ever since they’d come out here—almost two weeks now. She hadn’t minded. She’d gone to the beach nearly every day. Worked through Simon’s painkiller stash at a steady but undetectable pace, or so she hoped. And ignored Dom’s increasingly unhinged texts, which was easy enough to do. He had no idea where she was. She tried blocking his number, but he got through with new ones. She would change her number as soon as she got the chance. Dom had sent another jag that morning:Alex
Even if the texts still caused a lurch in her stomach, she had only to look up from the phone and it all seemed manageable. She was in Simon’s house, the windows open onto pure green. Dom was in another sphere, one she could pretend no longer quite existed.
Still floating on her back, Alex opened her eyes, disoriented by the quick hit of sun. She righted herself with a glance at the shore: she was farther out than she’d imagined. Much farther. How had that happened? She tried to head back in, toward the beach, but she wasn’t seeming to get anywhere, her strokes eaten up by the water.
She took a breath, tried again. Her legs kicked hard. Her arms churned. It was impossible to gauge whether the shore was getting any closer. Another attempt to head straight back in, more useless swimming. The sun kept beating down, the horizon line wavered: it was all utterly indifferent.
The end—here it was.
This was punishment, she was certain of it.
Strange, though, how this terror didn’t last. It only passed through her, appearing and disappearing almost instantly.
Something else took its place, a kind of reptile curiosity.
She considered the distance, considered her heart rate, made a calm assessment of the elements in play. Hadn’t she always been good at seeing things clearly?
Time to change course. She swam parallel to the shore. Her body took over, remembering the strokes. She didn’t allow for any hesitation. At some point, the water started resisting her with less force, and then she was moving along, getting closer to shore, and then close enough that her feet touched the sand.
She was out of breath, yes. Her arms were sore, her heartbeat juddered out of sync. She was much farther down the beach.
But fine—she was fine.
The fear was already forgotten.
No one on the shore noticed her, or looked twice. A couple walked past, heads bent, studying the sand for shells. A man in waders assembled a fishing pole. Laughter floated over from a group under a tent. Surely, if Alex had been in any real danger, someone would have reacted, one of these people would have stepped in to help.
Simon’s car was fun to drive. Frighteningly responsive, frighteningly fast. Alex hadn’t bothered to change out of her swimsuit, and the leather upholstery cooked her thighs. Even at a good speed, the car windows down, the air was thick and warm. What problem did Alex need to solve at this moment? Nothing. No variables to calculate, the painkiller still doing its good work. Compared to the city, this was heaven.
The city. She was not in the city, and thank god for that.
It was Dom, of course, but not only Dom. Even before Dom, something had soured. In March she had turned twenty-two without fanfare. She had a recurring stye that drooped her left eyelid unpleasantly. The makeup she applied to cover it only made it worse: she reinfected herself, the stye pulsing for months. Finally she’d gotten an antibiotic prescribed at a walk-in clinic. Every night she tugged on her lids and squeezed a line of medicated ointment straight into the socket. Involuntary tears streamed only from her left eye.
On the subway, or on the sidewalks, woolly with new snow, Alex had started to notice strangers giving her a certain look. Their gaze lingering. A woman in a plaid mohair coat studied Alex with unnerving focus, her expression twisted with what seemed like mounting concern. A man, his wrists white under the strain of many plastic bags, stared at Alex until she finally got off the train.
What were people seeing in her aura, what stink was emanating?
Maybe she was imagining it. But maybe not.
She’d been twenty when she first arrived in the city. Back when she still had the energy to use a fake name, and still believed gestures like that had value, meant the things she was doing weren’t actually happening in her real life. Back when she kept lists: The names of the places she went with the men. Restaurants that charged for bread and butter. Restaurants that refolded your napkin when you went to the bathroom. Restaurants that only served steak, pink but flavorless and thick as a hardcover book. Brunches at mid-range hotels, with unripe strawberries and too-sweet juice, slurry with pulp. But the appeal of the lists wore off quickly or something about them started to depress her, so she stopped.
Now Alex was no longer welcome in certain hotel bars, had to avoid certain restaurants. Whatever charm she had was losing its potency. Not fully, not totally, but enough that she began to understand it was a possibility. She saw it happen to others, the older girls she’d known since moving here. They defected for their hometowns, making a grab at a normal life, or else disappeared entirely.
In April: A manager had, in low tones, threatened to call the police after she’d tried to charge dinner to an old client’s account. Too many of her usuals stopped reaching out, for whatever reason—ultimatums eked out of couples therapy and this new fad of radical honesty, or the first flushes of guilt precipitated by the birth of children, or just plain boredom. Her monthly cash flow fell precipitously. Alex considered breast augmentation. She rewrote her ad copy, paid an exorbitant fee to be featured in the first page of results. Dropped her rates, then dropped them again.
Six hundred roses, the ads said. Six hundred kisses. Things only very young girls would want six hundred of.
Alex got a series of laser treatments: flashes of blue light soaked her face while she looked out of tinted medical goggles like a somber spaceman. In the meantime, she had her photos redone by a twitchy art student who asked, mildly, whether she might consider a trade for services. He had a pet bunny that lurched around his makeshift studio, its eyes demonic pink.
May: One of her roommates wondered why their Klonopin was dwindling so rapidly. A gift card had gone missing, a favorite bracelet. A consensus that Alex had been the one to break the window unit. Had Alex broken the window unit? She had no memory of it, but it was possible. Things she touched started to seem doomed.